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Metal thieves not giving illegal trade a holiday
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The metal thieves certainly are not giving businesses, schools and private parties a "holiday" from metals thefts this season. There are state and local laws prohibiting the thefts and cashing-in of unlawfully-acquired metals, but they have not been effective enough to thwart the many criminals who roam the streets at night looking for any metals they can steal. Automotive parts, radiators and catalytic converters, in particular, are also frequent targets of metals thieves.

The problem with these kinds of thieves is that there are more of them now owing to the state's prisoner early release program. It is also a fact that local jails are so absolutely full with prisoners formerly held in state institutions that persons arrested for property crimes are dealt with only superficially. Local jails cannot even handle some of the more serious offenses which leads to problems with maintaining law and order. At the same time these thefts detract from the quality of life for community members, many of whom feel that everything they own has to be locked or secreted away. The days of feeling that your possessions are safe seem to be long gone.

Businesses regularly lose air conditioner parts, water supply valves, electrical wire and similar items to thieves who stop at nothing to get a few dollars' worth of copper, aluminum, iron or other metals. To put this into perspective, copper sells for approximately $3.32 per pound. Aluminum fetches about 80 cents per pound and brass approximately $2.50 to $3 per pound. For all the damage the thieves cause and all the effort they expend when stealing these kinds of metals, it hardly seems worth it, but to them, apparently it is "better" than getting a legitimate job.

Metals thieves put a lot of effort into stealing sellable scrap metal items. The police regularly receive reports from businesses and schools where $50,000 air conditioner units have been stripped of their aluminum and copper wire. Once stripped, the only option frequently is to replace the entire unit. It has happened multiple times here in Ceres and I am quite sure that, at most, the thieves got a return of $75 to $100 for their destructive efforts. In cases where repairs can be made, the cost often exceeds $10,000. The worst part of this is that the taxpayers foot the bill for this thievery. And even when it is a private businesses that falls victim, we all pay indirectly for the damage. When a business suffers at the hands of metals thieves, they may not be able to operate until the repairs are made creating inconveniences for customers and financial losses for the businesses and their employees.

Amazingly, metal thieves also have been stealing manhole covers and storm drain grates. How any scrap metal buyer can take in a manhole cover without being suspicious is hard to understand - unless they too are operating illegally. Clearly, they must know that they are stolen which makes them as criminally culpable as the thieves who stole the items. The police in our region conduct regular visits to local recyclers, and they (the recyclers) appear to be compliant with the regulations that prohibit them from buying stolen metals. I continue to believe that "out-of-town" metal buyers meet up with the thieves of our area; they buy their stolen metals and then transport them to a location some distance away from here. Whatever is actually happening, these metal thieves have no problem finding an outlet for their stolen metals.

Since the criminal justice system is no longer as capable of handling metals thieves as compared to several years ago, the best option to safeguard property is through prevention. I strongly urge all persons with valuable metals on their properties to take the time to mark those items with identifying marks and engravings. I am fully aware of the difficulties of this suggestion, but it is necessary in this environment where there are so many thieves and where the criminal consequences for them are so limited. All items, fixtures and mechanical devices made of valuable metals should be marked in a way that recyclers and the police can immediately and easily determine ownership. Heavy duty paints are okay, but ownership information engraved into these items is the best method. Do not engrave drivers' license numbers or Social Security numbers -- a business name, address and phone number is best.

Some metal devices should be caged with locks or chained to make the theft of them more difficult. Access openings for sprinkler systems should be capped and locked. Video cameras would aid greatly in finding the thieves, but be careful about how and where they are placed ¬ the thieves steal them too. There are other preventative measures as well, and a visit with your local police department crime prevention officer will also prove beneficial for ideas and suggestions.

The police take metal thefts seriously. We need to know of any tips or leads on these thefts and if a person wants to remain anonymous, they can call Modesto Crime Stoppers at 521-4636. The Crime Stoppers Program assures complete anonymity and it serves this entire county. In Ceres, the patrol officers are constantly on the lookout for metal thieves. And, while we have an idea about who some of the suspects are, we still need community members to be extra vigilant and quick to report suspicious persons who might be stealing or in possession of these metals.